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ThinkPlace staff at work

How we tipped the rules of HR completely upside down (and you can too)

What if you picked your boss out of a hat?

And what if they weren’t really your boss at all?

It might sound a little far-fetched – Harry Potter meets HR department – but it’s a way of doing things that our company invented seven years ago and which has transformed the culture and structure of our business in ways we hoped for but did not imagine would be so powerful.

At the end of each year, our entire staff – more than 60 people in our Australian studios – gets together for an important ritual. A hat is passed around and each staff member pulls a name from it.

They aren’t being marked down as Hufflepuff or Slytherin. They – as their colleagues all watch on – are selecting their unboss.

Yes, that’s right. Unboss.

The unboss concept originated in 2011 when our company was relatively young. I am the founding partner of ThinkPlace, a consultancy that uses design thinking and human-centered design to create solutions for the kind of complex challenges that governments, companies and other leading organisations routinely face in these complex times.

Today, ThinkPlace is a fast-growing industry leader with three studios in Australia and a global network that also includes studios in New Zealand, Singapore, Kenya and the United States.

But back then we were small. We had grown from one person to around 15, and, for the first time, we were starting to grapple with how we should set ourselves up as a workforce.

What structure did we want? What culture? What roles?

What we didn’t want

After a long period as a senior executive in government departments I wanted to avoid rigid structure.  The downsides of rigid structures are silos, sub cultures, information blockages and inabilities to mobilise resources to priorities.

It's become a bit of a cliché now, but we wanted to be nimble.

And so my colleague Nina Terrey  suggested the idea of an unboss. ‘’It’s not really a boss,’’ she said. “But it’s not nothing.’’

Unbeknownst to us, just a year later, Danes Jacob Bøtter and Lars Kolind  would publish a book about a new way of doing company life. They called it Unboss.

“Did you think that the purpose of business was to make money?” their book asks. “No—businesses must first and foremost be useful. They must become movements that change the world.”

It goes on: “You are no longer employed by an employer, you are a partner in a team … Your company does not sell products to customers, it creates value with customers.”

These ideas are strikingly similar to some of the guiding principles behind ThinkPlace (although we also like to make money because that allows us to do more good).

Call it serendipity, or maybe coincidence. But we didn’t learn of the book’s existence until seven years later. By then unboss was an embedded part of the way we run ThinkPlace.

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John Body's profile'
John Body
Jet planes in the sky
Under the 'unboss' system each employee has a 'career flightplan' that ensures their long-term interests and aspirations are valued and prioritised.

How Unboss works at ThinkPlace

Each staff member draws a new unboss every 12 months. While we don’t have a heavy hierarchy we do have levels, based on experience and time with the company. These mean that people always choose a colleague who is in a position to help guide them.

We could have allocated unbosses another way but we liked the symbolism that you pick your own.

Making it random (and for a finite period) is intentional too. We wanted to avoid the dreaded silos – the idea that leaders “own” direct reports and build power or influence in this way.

We wanted to avoid a culture that says “I can’t talk to that person or collaborate with them because they are in a different team.”

Our staff work on projects for clients. Every project involves assembling a team and those teams do have leaders. But you might work with that person for two days, two weeks or two months depending on the project length. They are in no way your boss.

Our teams are constituted and reconstituted on a regular basis. We wanted it that way. Everybody works with everybody, and we all learn from each other. There is no space for the tribalism of “my team is better than yours”.

Within this loose structure, your unboss is responsible for your trajectory. For caring about your development and growth. For knowing where you seek to get to and helping you get there.

It’s more than mentoring. It’s their responsibility to partner with you to navigate through your career. We don’t want people feeling lost. Drifting.

Tune-ups

We wanted to take all the rules of HR and tip them on their head. Many of them are designed to avoid underperformance rather than promote high performance.  For example, employees (and bosses) hate annual performance reviews. In our system, workers have quarterly “tune-ups” with their unboss. Making these contacts more regular, less formalised and more development focused makes it a positive experience.

To me the idea of “performance management” puts pressure on the employee in an unpleasant way. They are a problem that must be managed.

We don’t see things that way. And our people really enjoy these meetings. In the tune-up, employees are assessed around six key areas: your impact on the world, your billable work, your ability to develop trusted relationships with clients, your learning and growth, your contribution to business development and very importantly, your contribution to our culture and values.

With your unboss you create and manage a “career flight plan”. Where do you want to get to? What skills do you wish to add in the next little while? Where would you like to improve?

So how do you get a pay-rise?

We do have levels at ThinkPlace and those levels come with different salary points but you can’t climb them by ingratiating yourself with a boss or simply doing his or her bidding.

We wanted to make those levels transparent: Everybody knows which level their colleagues are at. And levels are mostly based on experience. We set targets for our team regarding progression but I wouldn’t describe them as stretch targets. If you start out as a Business Designer and meet your KPIs, after 12 years you should be a Senior Executive Designer. It’s a highly predictable progression.

We wanted to avoid the idea of internal competition. There are not a finite number of positions at the next level. You are not competing with your neighbour. If you do the work and do it well you will progress.

We never stop fine-tuning but in general terms we are very happy with our structure and how it has developed. We haven’t created silos. We haven’t created entitlement or petty rivalry.

We have built a culture in which people help and support each other. We take pleasure and pride in each other’s achievements and our people are learning and growing in ways that are good for them and good for the company.

We believe we have a happy workforce and we have enjoyed success in attracting and retaining top talent. It’s the basis for so much of what we’ve been able to achieve.

We invented this system and designed it to address the limitations that come with a traditional structure. As we’ve grown larger we’ve tweaked it, and we’ll probably continue to do that, but we couldn’t be more delighted with the culture that unboss has created.